Authors Remember the Work That Bought Them Time to Write

The folks at Open Road Media have done it again.  This new video of theirs focuses on writers and the work they did in order to support themselves at the beginning of their careers.  Perfect for Labor Day 2012.

Happy Labor Day, everyone.  The willingness to work hard so that our children will have better lives than our own is what makes this country a great one.  Unfortunately, that is not an easy task to accomplish these days, so enjoy your break on Monday – time to go back to work on Tuesday.

Port Vila Blues

Port Vila Blues is the second of Garry Disher’s seven “Wyatt thrillers” to be published in the United States under the Soho Crime imprint.  The novel, first published in Disher’s native Australia in December 1995, is actually the fifth book in a series that now totals seven titles.  (There is a thirteen-year gap between books six and seven.)  Soho Crime introduced professional robber Wyatt Wareen to U.S. readers in 2011 with its publication of Wyatt, the latest thriller in the series.  That one won Australia’s Ned Kelley award when it was published there a year earlier. 

Wyatt is a true professional.  He tries to recruit only the most competent of those people whose unique talents he needs to pull off a job successfully.  He plans his robberies down to the last detail, never leaving anything to chance, always aware that something can go wrong very suddenly.  And, if something does happen, he always has a contingency plan mapped out that will allow him and his people to make their escape.  But if not for bad luck, this guy would have no luck at all. 
As Port Vila Bluesbegins, Wyatt successfully pulls off a complicated burglary that nets him a nice bonus in addition to the cash he expected to find: a very distinctive diamond-studded Tiffany brooch.  Unfortunately, he is not the first to have stolen the brooch, and when Wyatt contracts with a fence to move the piece, he sets off a wild chain of events and people start dying.  As it turns out, the original thief is not the only one wanting to get his hands on the Tiffany – and around Wyatt’s throat.
Wyatt is not an easy man to get to know.  He is a loner, and he likes it that way.  When it comes to his business, he is a professional’s professional.  He looks for competent help but he understands that, almost by definition, no one in his business can really be trusted; it is every man for himself.  He is cool under pressure and does not invest much energy in emotion and personal feelings.  Those who dare double-cross him, however, will have to face him again because Wyatt will not rest easy until he kills them – and he always does.  He takes pride in his work.
Anti-hero Wyatt Wareen makes for an interesting character, and Disher allows the reader just enough detail about him to keep him simultaneously intriguing and mysterious.  He is certainly not a likable man, but that will not keep readers from pulling for him in a noirish world in which even the good guys are not all that likable – or good.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=161695101X&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

Is Amazon Killing the Critic?

Edgar Allan Poe

The Guardian (London) website includes an interesting take on the Amazon.com mini-scandal that was formally exposed in the New York Times this week.  Perhaps the best thing resulting from the Times piece is that the unethical jackass responsible for pasting thousands of fake reviews (for which he was paid a small fortune) on Amazon – along with his equally unethical little helpers – appears to be out of business.  For the moment.  I hope he hasn’t just come up with a plan to take his shady business underground for the duration of the chatter about him.

From The Guardian:

For as long as book reviews have been published, writers have argued that book reviewing itself is in a state of crisis – a pointless exercise, a waste of time. In 1846 Edgar Allan Poe called reviews nothing but a“tissue of flatteries”.

[…]

Today, the crisis takes a different form: the challenge of the web; the decline of the critic – you know the deal. More narrowly, there’s Amazon, and its anonymous, unmarshalled reviews. There have been numerous flare-ups about these – the self-reviewing, the hate-reviewing, the downright-unreadable-reviewing, and so on. The latest unholy behaviour to come to light is of authors paying for positive reviews. 

[…]

The unsavoury Amazon stuff notwithstanding, no one is about to write off the whole business of reader-reviews. They are, in any case, unstoppable, and the sheer weight of numbers suggests that only a tiny fraction of them can be corrupted. Undeniably, they represent the latest stimulating chapter in the rather agonised history of book reviewing (read Orwell on the subject, and Edmund Wilson, and Cyril Connolly, and James Wood …) The ones most to be trusted, however, are perhaps more likely to be found on smaller, more specialised sites than Amazon – Goodreads and Librarything, for example…

[…]

But it also seems to me that the Amazon scandals reaffirm the importance of the much-maligned traditional book review. Reviews in, say, newspaper books sections (I’m biased) are vital in offering a properly critical (often negative) opinion of new books: a necessary accompaniment to (also important) articles in the same sections that simply showcase books, or report interviews with authors: these can all too easily become elegant exercises in PR. 

(I encourage you to click over to the original article for much more.  While there, follow the links embedded in the article for a reminder of how authors have felt about book reviews over the centuries.)

I agree with the newspaper that both types of book review play an important (and, hopefully, influential) role in modern day bookselling.  The link between the increasing number of online reviews and the dwindling number of print reviews cannot be denied.  More and more, readers seem to rely on peer opinion more than they do on the opinions of professional reviewers.  This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is understandable.  Let’s face it.  The average reader is more interested in reading what his peer group is reading than in what a professional reviewer tells him he should be reading.  I read a lot – a whole lot – and I still sometimes get the feeling that professional critics are reviewing for each other, not for the rest of us.

More books are being reviewed today then ever before and those reviews cover a wider variety of books than in the past.  Major newspapers and magazines tend to review much the same list of books, the “important” ones written by respected, or highly commercial, authors.  Everyone else is on their own.  Online review sites, while not immune to the same kind of overlapping, certainly cover a wider range of books, authors, and genres than is being covered by their print cousins.  Small publisher books are being discovered every hour by readers who would have never heard of them if it were not for the online reviews.  Books and authors that would have never found an audience are managing to find readers – and amateur reviewers are happy to play a role in spreading the word about them.

There is plenty of room for all of us.

One More Reason I Still Don’t Buy E-Books

Unless e-book and e-music purchasers have shopped very carefully, they do not really own the vast majority of the content they have downloaded to all those e-readers and mp3 players out there.  Rather, they own a license to use the products.  Unfortunately for them, very few of the benefits of true ownership come with those licenses, and that is precisely why I refuse to spend a whole lot of money on digital content.

Now, the Wall Street Journal, via its Market Watch page, gives me one more reason not to invest any money in e-books.  The article explains just what might happen at a collector’s death to all the cash he has invested in digital content over his lifetime.  True, as the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you, but if you are not prepared ahead of time it will all be gone with the wind anyway.

Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.

And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

[…]


According to Amazon’s terms of use, “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content.” Apple limits the use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder.

“That account is an asset and something of value,” says Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney at Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard in Parsippany, N.J.

But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?

Most digital content exists in a legal black hole.

 That’s probably enough to make most of you at least a little nervous, but the article does go on to explain one or two reasonable workarounds to the problem.  Of course, the easiest fix is to pass legislation keeping digital content from being sold with all these absurd restrictions in the first place.  And until that happens, I’m not buying – especially at the crazy high prices some publishers demand for their books.

Thankfully, a few publishers have already come to the realization that it is bad faith to restrict usage of the books they sell.  They are out there.  Support them and maybe the rest will finally come around.

This is a good place to start looking for DRM-free e-books.

The Dirty Little Secret of Amazon and Barnes & Noble

Amazon and Barnes & Noble (among others) share a dirty little secret: they do not much care if book reviews posted on their websites are legitimate or not.  They are in the business of selling books, pure and simple, and if the reviews cannot be considered offensive in language or content, the booksellers are happy to use them to sell more books to more suckers.

I have long been irritated by reviews written by authors of their own books (and not just self-published authors are guilty of this).  Several authors have been outed for doing exactly that when they lose their tempers with legitimate reviewers who make negative comments about their books.  In the process of trashing those reviews, and those reviewers, the “authors” often reveal more than they intend to reveal.  Just as bad, in my opinion, are all the reviews being posted by author spouses, parents, siblings,  and best friends. At least those are easy to spot on Amazon by clicking on the “See all my reviews” spot located near the reviewer’s name.  Almost always, the suspect review has been written by someone so amazed by this particular book they were moved to write a book review for the very first time in their lives.  And apparently, they are still so stunned they have not written one since.  That must be one spectacular book.

But here is something that tops everything.  There is actually a jackass out there that makes as much as $28,000 per month writing fake book reviews for fake authors who are desperate to fool the reading public about the quality of their books.  Ethics be damned.  These con artists don’t care about quality or legitimate respect (of course, neither do writers of the James Patterson school of writing).  The New York Times features a long article about this practice and the previously mentioned jackass.  Interestingly, the man’s website, one called GettingBookReviews, seems to have gone undercover for the moment.  I can only imagine the number of derisive comments that must have been delivered to the site today before it crashed or was yanked by its owner.  Here’s a sample of what is in the article:

In the fall of 2010, Mr. Rutherford started a Web site, GettingBookReviews.com. At first, he advertised that he would review a book for $99. But some clients wanted a chorus proclaiming their excellence. So, for $499, Mr. Rutherford would do 20 online reviews. A few people needed a whole orchestra. For $999, he would do 50.
There were immediate complaints in online forums that the service was violating the sacred arm’s-length relationship between reviewer and author. But there were also orders, a lot of them. Before he knew it, he was taking in $28,000 a month.
A polite fellow with a rakish goatee and an entrepreneurial bent, Mr. Rutherford has been on the edges of publishing for most of his career. Before working for the self-publishing house, he owned a distributor of inspirational books. Before that, he was sales manager for a religious publishing house. Nothing ever quite worked out as well as he hoped. With the reviews business, though, “it was like I hit the mother lode.”

This is a long article.  It is worth your time because of what it exposes, including the pictures of the jackass-in-chief and one of his worthless minions.  These people have no shame.

So Todd Jason Rutherford became the James Patterson of book reviews, hiring others to write the countless number of reviews he could not possibly do on his own.  The difference is that Patterson does not try to hide the fact that he has become as much a brand name as an author – he slaps the name of his co-writers (in smaller print, of course) on the book-jacket alongside his own.  Rutherford, on the other hand, is paid to write lies or exaggerations that he hopes will pass for the truth.

Why does this bother me?  Because I spend countless hours trying to spread the word about good books and good writing.  I do it because I fear for the future of quality publishing and hope that my efforts help some tiny bit in ensuring that good books don’t get lost in the gigantic haystack of trash being published today.  I read every single word – including dedications and acknowledgements – of the novels I review.  I even, at the very least, scan all the footnotes of the nonfiction books that I write about.  Someone like Rutherford cheapens the whole process and makes my efforts worthless because his personal lack of ethics makes all online reviews suspect.

Amazon and Barnes & Noble should, but they will not, of course, delete the reviews of books whose authors have openly admitted to paying for reviews.  I know that my Don Quixote approach to all of this will not make a bit of difference but I had to say it, and I hope others will join me in asking the online booksellers to do everything they can to stop this practice.  P.T. Barnum was right.  There is a sucker born every minute.  But stealing from him is still not right.

So now Todd Jason Rutherford has the gall to say that he is suspicious of ALL online reviews.  Thanks, Jackass.

Life Behind the Mask

Michael Schafer is a very good baseball umpire, a man as dedicated to teaching the game as he is to making certain that the youth baseball games he officiates are played fairly and by the rules. Unfortunately, he is not as good a writer as he is an umpire.  Life Behind the Mask is a book that will benefit youth league umpires and managers much more than it will interest those who have children or grandchildren playing the game. It is essentially a book in which baseball’s rules are illustrated by stories and fictional situations, especially the more obscure and complicated rules. It is not nearly the book it could, or should, have been;

There are so many side-stories in kid baseball these days that Life Behind the Mask could have been a book filled with heartwarming stories about comebacks, kids who overcame great physical difficulties to play the game, parents who go the extra mile to coach teams, little girls competing with the boys, (to be fair, there is one good story about a little girl who pitched underhanded to the boys and did quite well with her surprising delivery), etc. There are thousands of personal stories out there and I’m sure that a man who has been around kid baseball as long as Schafer has knows dozens of them in great, firsthand detail. But, although a handful of such stories are included in the book, they are few and far between – and are usually used to illustrate some obscure baseball rule.  This is simply a book that has none of the feel of a memoir despite being labeled as one on its front cover.

Frankly, I could not finish Life Behind the Mask – something that hardly ever happens to me when I commit to reviewing a book. If I make that commitment, I expect to read every word that the author wrote, including dedications, notes, and acknowledgements.  But despite being an obsessed baseball fan, I am bored by all the “what if” rule interpretations that the author chooses to focus on here. He convinced me to abandon the book when he described two very complicated, and rather rare, situations where the infield fly rule was triggered and asked his readers what their calls would have been in each instance. Only at the end of that section does Schafer tell the reader that he will not be revealing the correct interpretation of the rule. Cute?  Funny?  I don’t think so.  End of book.

Youth baseball umpires searching for tips on rule interpretations and suggestions about handling managers, parents, and young players might want to read this one.  Others are very likely to be frustrated by it.

Freaks

I suppose I should have started reading Freaks already suspecting that the short story collection has a serious message to deliver, but it was only the book’s dedication that finally clued me in.  That dedication reads: “to all who, if only for a moment, felt that they didn’t belong.”  Well, as it turns out, the book is dedicated to all of us because we are all freaks and we all have super powers – whether we deserve them or not.  But because so many of those super powers have the potential to ruin lives – and not just our own – the critical decision we have to make is how to use our powers.
Freaks is a beautifully packaged (in the guise of an old fashioned comic book) collection of fifty pieces of flash fiction. Some of the stories were written by Nik Perring, some by Caroline Smailes, and others are a combination of their efforts.  In addition, illustrator Darren Craske provides mood-setting comic-book-style illustrations that add greatly to the fun. 
Don’t get me wrong.  There are stories here about people with “legitimate” super powers.  One woman, for instance, can duplicate herself by spinning in circles.  But even that story is really more about the little girl who has unexpectedly failed to inherit her mother’s ability to “photocopy” herself.  “The Photocopier” is also a good example of the tone and writing style to be found in so many of these stories.  This, for instance, is the girl’s reaction to seeing her mother throw off five copies of herself for the very first time:
“I swear to Christ it was the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen.  There was me with wee in me knickers, with six of me mums standing there smiling at me like nutters.”
You have to love that image.
Nik Perring
“The Photocopier” is the first story in the book and, if I am reading the rather disturbing little tale “Maman, Flying” correctly, that one comprises the perfect bookend with which to end the collection.  Opinion about what really happens in this little five-paragraph story is likely to vary from reader to reader – and, for readers like me, from reading to reading – but “Maman, Flying” is the perfect offset to the comic mood of the book’s initial offering.
Caroline Smailes

Freaks is a book about relationships – relationships between husbands and wives, lovers, potential lovers, friends, students, and parents and their children – all kinds of relationships.  Some of the super powers described in Freaks will surprise you because you might already have one or two of them yourself.  For certain, you know someone who has them, and you just might have had some of them used against you.
This one is fun, but there is more here than initially meets the eye.  My fellow freaks are sure to enjoy it.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0007442890&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

E-Books in a Box from BoXette

From the U.K., comes word of an interesting new approach to marketing e-books.  A company called BoXette is doing exactly what its name implies- creating and marketing “boxed sets” of classics in e-book format via brick-and-mortar bookstores across the U.K.  The book collections are packaged inside special book-size presentation boxes containing a “USB card” formatted in both the epub and Kindle formats.  Also in the box, is what is said to be an “insightful” illustrated booklet highlighting the author of the collection being sold.  The company’s first offering is the Charles Dickens collection comprised of all twenty Dickens novels.

This first offering is already available for ordering online or purchasing directly in various U.K. bookstores at a price of twenty pounds, about thirty U.S. dollars.  Whether book buyers are willing to pay approximately $1.50 per title for classics that can be legally downloaded free already, remains to be seen.  Perhaps the double-formatting and ease of directly plugging a “Dickens collection” into an e-reader will be enough added value to make this work…perhaps not.

For now, the company seems to be concentrating on royalty-free books (with Sherlock Holmes, H.G. Wells, and Beatrix Potter collections up next), but it promises multi-media-enhanced books and books from more contemporary writers in the future.

I suspect that many bookstores will be quick to accept the BoXette product because it gives them the opportunity to sell a few e-books they would otherwise never move.  This doesn’t exactly turn them into competition for Barnes & Noble or Amazon, but it can’t hurt.

While I realize it is too soon to know if this will work out in Europe, do you think something like this would work in this country?

All the Time in the World

E.L. Doctorow’s newest short story collection, All the Time in the World, is a collection of twelve stories that have been published previously in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Kenyon Review, and The New American Review.  Moreover, six of the stories have been included in previous short story collections,  meaning that only six of the twelve are appearing in book form for the first time.  Because, as the book jacket notes, the stories were written over a period of “many years,” the collection is an opportunity for first-time readers of Doctorow short stories to experience a representative selection of styles favored by the author.

And, stylistically, these stories are all over the map.  That means, of course, that the appeal of individual stories will vary from reader to reader.  I, for example, generally favor stories with relatively direct approaches to plot and theme, and I consider it a bonus if the stories also offer fully developed characters.  Stories with a less linear approach, particularly those that use a stream-of-consciousness style, work less successfully for me.  Several of the stories in All the Time in the World are of that type – and two or three of them, I confess, did leave me a bit mystified.
Several of these dozen stories are particularly notable, including the first in the collection, “Wakefield.”  This is the story of a businessman who, almost by accident, fails to return to his family one evening after the return leg of his work commute is disrupted by a massive power failure.  Instead, he hides out above the family garage, from where – over several months – he watches his wife and two daughters get on with the rest of their lives while he creates a strange new existence for himself.

Among other topics, are stories about a murderous mother and son, an inane religious cult, women hardened by life’s demands, a stranger who longs only to get inside his childhood home one more time, and a teenage boy obliged to write letters from his dead father to his senile grandmother.  One story happens in the small town America that existed shortly after the Civil War, others in America’s large modern cities and suburbs. 

Taken as a whole, the stories confirm that E.L. Doctorow is, despite his having produced so few short stories over his long career, a master of that craft.  Although the author will always be thought of first as a novelist, the stories selected for All the Time in the World prove he can write short stories with the best of his peers.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0812982037&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

Moby-Dick, Phyllis Diller, and Canadian Authors

A Few Random (Some Bookish, Some Not) Thoughts:
1.  Word has come that Phyllis Diller died at her home today, age 95.  I remember how funny, and how different, she seemed to be when she first appeared on so many of those great old television variety shows more than four decades ago.  It is hard to believe that she was 95 until you remember that she was already in her mid-forties before the general public fell in love with her brand of stand-up comedy.  She was actually 40 before, at the urging of her husband who thought she was a natural, she tried stand-up for the first time – but she still managed to achieve a level of success that most comedians would envy even today.  Phyllis, who retired in 2002, was a very special talent.
2.  Do you do much re-reading?  I would love to do more of it but I always find myself rushing, rather than relishing, a re-read and that tarnishes the whole experience for me.  There are just so many newer books (and they pile up faster and faster every year) that I want to read that I find it hard to concentrate on an older book the way I need to if I am going to enjoy it.  Too, I always go into a re-read with a little bit of fear that I am on the verge of ruining some good memories, memories that will be destroyed forever by the more adult version of myself doing the re-reading.  
I am, however, tempted to try a re-reading of Melville’s Moby Dick before the end of the year.  My interest was prompted by a companion book to that classic that I received from Oxford University Press called Dive Deeper: Journeys with Moby-Dick (by George Cotkin).  Cotkin, a California history professor, provides “plot points” for all 135 sections of the novel to help the reader work his way through it.  Couple this with the beautiful Library of America version of Moby-Dick that I expect to receive next week and it seems like fate that I tackle the classic again.  I had no choice about reading the novel the first time around and, as a consequence, I remember very little about it.  I am willing to bet that, with Cotkin’s help, and because I want to read Moby-Dick this time, it would be a very different reading experience.
3.  GoodReads, a site I am willing to bet most of you are familiar with even if you do not have a user account there, recently announced that it has reached ten million users and a total shelved catalog of more than 360 million books.  The site is only a bit over six years old, so that is rather astounding – especially when you consider that there were only five million uses just fifteen months ago.  Do take a look at the site because if you are a book-blog reader, it is almost certain to be something you will enjoy.  If you are there already, send me a friend request ( to Sam Sattler) so that I can keep up with what is going on in your corner of the book world.
4.  I have three books lined up for John Mutford’s sixth annual Canadian Book Challenge – and that’s a relief.  For a while, it seemed that every Canadian book I wanted to read was just not to be found here in Houston without getting the mail system involved.  But all of a sudden I have three books in-hand, including the one I’m already about 25% of the way through: Louise Penny’s new Inspector Gamache novel called The Beautiful Mystery.  I am absolutely loving that one so far and cannot wait to dive back into the remote monastery where Gamache is investigating a shocking murder.  This is my third Inspector Gamache mystery so I am already familiar with the main characters, but I think it would work well even as a standalone.
I also have a copy of Canadian author Vincent Lam’s debut novel, The Headmaster’s Wager that I am looking forward to reading because I really enjoyed his short story collection and know how good a writer he is.  That one was called Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures and I reviewed it way back in September 2007.  It surprises me that I read it almost exactly five years ago because I remember it very well – a true testament to both the quality of the stories and Lam’s writing.
And, finally, I have a library copy of short pieces by Margaret Atwood’s called Good Bones and Simple Murders.  I am not sure exactly how to categorize the pieces yet, so this should be interesting.  It seems to be a little bit of everything – lots of very short pieces housed in a rather small book.

London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets

For several years during the nineties, I spent a minimum of two hours every workday using London’s Metro to make my way from Richmond to Uxbridge. Although there was almost no underground travel on that route, I did use the underground portions of the system on weekends to explore the city – and always found it hard to believe that the earliest portion of the Underground (the Metropolitan Line) opened in 1863, just as America’s Civil War reached its mid-point.  All those travel-hours left me passively curious about the history of the Underground and the visionaries who dared build it. 
Recently, that curiosity was reawakened by Peter Ackroyd’s London Under: The Secret History beneath the Streets.  Although the book is not entirely devoted to the underground train system, the two or three chapters dedicated to the Underground will serve as a good primer for anyone interested in its history.  Ackroyd also offers a three-page bibliography that will be helpful to those readers wanting a more detailed understanding of the underground rail system.
There is a hidden world, one with a long history, beneath the streets of London.  Amongst all the cables carrying gas, water, telephone, and electricity are natural springs and rivers that still flow as they always have.  Catacombs beneath cemeteries and church graveyards house the ancient, and not so ancient, remains of London citizens.  The remnants of Roman amphitheaters and gang hideouts are as out of sight down there as the massive sewer system that carries the waste products of London’s millions.  Most fascinating to me, the London Underground still includes a number of “dead stations” that have been closed down over the decades – many of which still display the same posters and signs that were current on the day the stations were first bypassed. 
The tunnels beneath London are home to a small animal kingdom, as well.  Most prominent, as regular Tube passengers can attest, are countless Russian brown rats and mice, but there are also large populations of frogs, eels, mosquitoes, and cockroaches in the wetter portions of this vast underworld.  I also remember seeing a stray dog or two and numerous pigeons that appeared to be hopping rides from one station to the next in search of their next meals.  
Peter Ackroyd
Because of the catastrophic damage that would result if the tunnels were sabotaged, the London underworld is a “forbidden zone” to which entrance is limited strictly to those with legitimate need of access.  As a result, it is almost impossible for any one individual to study the whole of what lies beneath London’s streets.  Ackroyd does, however, manage to explain in concise terms the magnitude of what is buried here beneath one of the world’s greatest cities. 
The book includes chapters on the London Underground, rivers beneath the surface, the sewer system, animals and insects, pipes and cables, and how the underworld can affect the psyche of people.  There is much of interest in this little book of 228 pages (a page count that includes the bibliography and index) but Ackroyd’s style can make for tedious reading at times.  This is particularly the case in those chapters devoted to the underground waterways, chapters in which the author traces, almost block by block, the paths of the rivers and streams.  Patient readers, however, will come away with a solid, if basic, understanding of just how amazing the London underworld is – and will be left wishing that someone would further explore it to learn what more it can tell us about the city’s past.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0385531508&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

Book Trailer of the Week: Visiting Tom

I first ran across Michael Perry’s work when I stumbled upon a copy of his memoir, Truck: A Love Story, on the New Books shelves of my local library.  It made a great first impression on me and, as it would turn out, was probably my favorite memoir of that year.  I also have his Population 485 on my “want to read” list over at GoodReads but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Now I find this wonderful book trailer promoting his new book, Visiting Tom, and have another Michael Perry book to add to my wish list.  Take a look.  This one will touch your heart, and it is so beautifully constructed that I find myself wishing that the book had been made into a documentary as it was being written.

10th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase  (even though I am only finding one or two a month lately).

Michael has a web presence of his own where all of these books – and much more – can be purchased.  This guy can write, y’all.  But that’s not all.  He describes himself this way: “Author, Humorist, Singer/Songwriter, Amateur Pig Farmer.”  Not a bad life at all…

Not My Blood

The special appeal of series fiction, at least for me, largely comes from watching the lead characters change and mature over a number of years.  That, however, can be a double-edged sword when a reader begins a long-running series with its latest volume.  Not having watched a character evolve over time, a reader might find the current versions of the character and setting intriguing but discover that, for them, the earlier books do not work as well.  Because Not My Blood is Barbara Cleverly’s tenth “Joe Sandilands investigation,” but my first, that is exactly the proposition I look forward to putting to the test soon.  I am particularly curious this time because I have never before started a series so late in its run.
Not My Blood is set in 1933, a time far enough from both the past horrors of World War I and the future ones of World War II that people are still easily surprised by crimes against children.  And what Scotland Yard detective Joe Sandilands uncovers at one English boarding school shocks him to his core.
Joe spent time in India on assignment to the British Foreign Service but has been back in England now for several years.  When the young son of a British couple he befriended in India flees his Brighton-area boarding school and seeks shelter with Joe in London, Joe is drawn into an investigation at the school that unexpectedly has the potential to shame members at the highest levels of British society and government.  His determination to protect the little boy is intensified when Joe sees things in Jackie Drummond that convince him that Jackie could be the illegitimate son whose existence he never suspected.
Barbara Cleverly
A professor at Jackie’s school has been murdered, and Joe and the local police are charged with the responsibility of bringing the killer to justice.  When the investigation reveals that the murdered man was investigating the disappearance from the school of almost a dozen young boys over a period of several decades (only one of whose parents ever showed any concern about a missing son), and fearing that Jackie might be targeted as the next victim, Joe turns up the heat.  His efforts are ably assisted by a local cop and by Dorcas Joliffe, a headstrong young woman whom readers will remember from earlier books in the series.  Their united efforts, plus a bit of good luck, solve a case that has repercussions delicate enough to leave Joe wondering if he still has a job when it is all over.
Not My Blood has a lot going for it – intricate plot, entertaining characters, and intense atmosphere, among its strong points.  Too, the rural English setting Cleverly creates combines with the atmosphere of the period to give the book an ominous feel right from the beginning because readers sense that World War I has already stolen the world’s relative innocence – and we all know what is coming just down the road.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=1616951540&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

Hillsboro Library Is Something to Be Proud Of

I have always been fascinated by small town libraries still housed in old buildings, considering them to be special little gems.  I have, for instance, seen a number of nicely maintained (often fully restored) Carnegie libraries over the years and I never fail to silently thank Mr. Carnegie when I get lucky enough to spot one of the libraries he funded.

Last weekend, as I was returning from the big book auction up in Archer City, I stumbled across a new one to add to my list of favorite library sites.  This one is located in Hillsboro, Texas, and was originally constructed in 1913 as the town’s U.S. Post Office – which it remained until 1967.  The building itself is an adaptation of the Foundling Hospital of Florence, Italy.  Admittedly, the library is a fraction of the size of that beautiful structure (built in 1419) but it is a nice copy.

(Click on the photos to see a larger version of them.)

The first photo is of the Hillsboro library; the second is the Foundling Hospital:

Hillsboro Public Library

Foundling Hospital, Florence, Italy

Library Entrance

A Look Inside Via a Front Window

 I wish I could have gotten inside to do a little exploring, but these pictures were all taken on a Sunday morning.  With the budget cuts that so many library systems have made in recent years, I doubt that this one is open on Sundays at all these days.  But that brief glimpse through the window, despite the halo effect, gives an idea of what the interior is like.

I mentioned over on Facebook that I need to dedicate a road trip to searching out more old libraries.  In the past, I’ve taken extended driving vacations specifically to visit baseball parks and Civil War battle sites, so that’s not too much of a stretch.

The Caller

Scandinavian-authored crime fiction has taken the world by storm and, like many readers, I have read numerous crime fiction novels from that part of the world in the last two years.  Of the several authors whose work I have sampled, Karin Fossum has emerged as my favorite – and her latest, The Caller, reminds me why that is so.
Some of Fossum’s colleagues use such spectacular crimes and criminals in their books that they are, in the end, completely unbelievable because it is difficult to take some of their super-villains very seriously for an entire novel. Fossum’s books, on the other hand, have realistic settings that focus on the types of situation one is more likely to encounter in the real world – painting a truer picture of contemporary Norwegian life, in the process. Because her characters, both the bad guys and their victims, are believable and understandable, Fossum’s novels have a more ominous feel about them than the more incredible ones.  And it does not hurt one little bit that her wonderful Inspector Sejer is at the heart of every story.
This time around, someone seems to be playing games with people’s minds in a series of vicious pranks that are leaving deep emotional scars on the chosen targets.  It starts one summer day when a young mother goes outside to retrieve her napping baby and finds the child covered in blood.  Thankfully, when Inspector Sejer arrives at the hospital, he learns that the baby is not covered in its own blood.  The harm, however, has been done, and the repercussions of the emotional trauma suffered by the baby’s parents soon threaten their very marriage.  When Sejer receives a hand-delivered card promising that “hell begins now,” he understands just how important it is for him to stop the heartless prankster.
Karin Fossum

Fossum reveals the person behind all this criminal mischief early on in The Caller and, from that point onward, she uses alternating chapters to get inside the heads of the perpetrator and his victims.  Eventually, the truly destructive impact of the “pranks” mounts up and the person behind them starts to be blamed for every odd little thing that happens in the area – whether or not he is actually responsible.  When one of these odd events turns deadly, things begin to fall apart all around him.

The Caller is not a book about a horribly violent crime.  It is more a psychological crime thriller reminding me of the work of Ruth Rendell, especially when Rendell writes under her Barbara Vine pseudonym.   The bad things that happen are, in a way, accidents resulting from carelessness on the part of a young man who does not bother to think about the consequences of his decisions.  He is clever – but naïve about the ways of the world – and his victims pay a much steeper price than he ever imagined for them.
Fans of Karin Fossum will be pleased to hear that many (I agree with the assessment) consider this to be the author’s best work since The Indian Bride – and that one is a masterpiece of its type. 

(Review Copy provided by Publisher) 

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0547577524&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

The Last Book Sale Is History

I had quite a bookish adventure this weekend – and I almost missed it!

I woke up about 5:15 on Saturday morning and grabbed my iPad to check the headline articles on the Houston Chronicle website.  One of the articles was exciting enough to have me wide awake in seconds.

The Last Book Sale  – Day 1

The first day was over, but I still had a shot at getting there in time for some of the last day of the auction.  But I really had to hurry.  I was on the road in 20 minutes to begin my 357-mile road trip, stopping only once for gasoline and a quick look at the auction site to see when the modern first editions in the sale might come up.  It appeared that would happen shortly after the break for lunch, so I still had hope.

The drive took me almost six hours, but when I found the building being used to register bidders (and to collect their cash deposits) I was told that the modern firsts had all gone before the lunch break.  In fact, about 1200 lots were gone and 300 or so remained to be auctioned.  Because the $50 deposit was not refundable – and because I wasn’t really all that interested in the remaining lots – I decided not to register.

All was not lost, however, as I enjoyed wandering around little Archer City for much of the afternoon while mingling with book-buyers from all over the country.  There was so little fiction in the auctions (not really surprising since that is the way I remember Larry’s old Houston Booked Up store being stocked) that I probably would have had to overpay anyway if I wanted to bring anything home.

So…a few pictures from my afternoon are what I have to show for the 715-mile roundtrip.  And, of course, lots of good memories – and those were free.

The movie theater made famous in The Last Picture Show

Booked Up. No. 4, the auction site

Booked Up No. 3
Archer City’s Public Library

The Spur Hotel
The Old Jail, now a public museum

The County Courthouse (across the street from Booked Up 4)

Interesting Marker, on courthouse grounds

(Click on the images for larger views)

Forbes List of Highest Paid "Authors" in the World

Rick Riordan and his Wimpy Kid

It’s that time of year again.  Forbes has just announced its list of the “World’s Top-Earning Authors” and, as usual, I want to throw up.

First, here’s the list:

1.  James Patterson ($94 million)

2.  Stephen King ($39 million)

3.  Janet Evanovich ($33 million)

4.  John Grisham ($26 million)

5.  Jeff Kinney ($25 million) 

6.  Bill O’Reilly ($24 million)

7.  Nora Roberts ($23 million)

8.  Danielle Steel ($23 million)

9.  Suzanne Collins ($20 million) 

10. Dean Koontz ($19 million)

11.  J.K. Rowling ($17 million) 

12.  George R.R. Martin ($15 million)

13. Stephenie Meyer ($14 million)

14. Ken Follett ($14 million)

15. Rick Riordan ($13 million)

Is this what we have come to, Reading World?  I admit to enjoying some of Stephen King’s work (especially his “long short stories” or novellas), Ken Follett’s historical fiction, and some early Grisham, but the rest of this lineup has me shaking my head.  Don’t even get me started on hacks like James Patterson, though, because none of us can spare that much time.

Note: I am also giving a pass to Jeff Kinney of the Wimpy Kid series because anything that gets kids excited about reading is OK by me – and these actually look good.  And O’Reilly’s Lincoln is a cut above his usual stuff, too, although there’s not much of a track record there.

It’s almost all genre and YA fiction.  And next year, as the Forbes article points out, we will almost certainly see 50 Shades of Tripe author E.L. James crack the list for the first time.  Are serious adult readers really outnumbered by such a huge margin that not a single “literary” writer could crack this list?  Gore Vidal must be cursing out there somewhere.

The scariest thing about a list like this is that, with the demise of so many bookstores and traditional publishers, this might be all we can find in the future – this and a haystack of millions of self-published e-books within which it has become impossible to locate worthy offerings.  I need a beer…

My Dyslexia

Philip Schultz’s story will inspire and encourage anyone whose life has been impacted by dyslexia.  Schultz, who did not learn to read until he was eleven, did not discover he was himself dyslexic until he compared his own reading difficulties to those of his young son, a confirmed sufferer of the condition.  Today, despite his continuing struggle with language skills, Philip Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet.  His remarkable story and insights into dealing with dyslexia can be found in My Dyslexia the memoir in which he recounts his early schooling struggles, how he overcame the condition, and what his life is like today.

Much of what Schultz describes will be heartbreaking to the parents and grandparents of children struggling to keep up with their peers in the classroom.  Learning disabilities are difficult to cope with – as parents and grandparents of children who suffer from them, we already know that.  What most of us probably fail to understand fully is the emotional pain our children are suffering as they deal with the social stigma of being different from the majority of their friends and classmates.  Tragically, as Schultz stresses, these emotional scars are likely to last a lifetime.
Schultz, poet that he is, has a beautiful way with words that allows him to describe in vivid images what he has gone through, how he very suddenly learned to read at age eleven, and how he must compensate for his poor reading skills even today.   Consider, for instance, his description of what reading is like for him now:
            As I read, a kind of subtle bartering between uncertainty and hunger for knowledge goes on in my mind, in which I must conquer a feeling of hopelessness and anxiety.  I’ve learned to read the way a runner learns to expect and find his second and third winds, the way an athlete pushes himself beyond where it is comfortable to go.  I read word by word, sometimes congratulating myself on the completion of a sentence, each paragraph and chapter,
Or this description of what it was like for him in the classroom:
            I understood that I was different from other kids.  I lived in a world of differences measured not by appearances, wealth, or even intelligence.  The world I lived in involved struggle for control over my thoughts and actions.  My differentness felt freakish.  My brain wouldn’t obey me, nor my parents or my teachers.  If I had trouble learning to read a clock, know my left from my right, hearing instructions – things everyone else seem to do easily – how could I trust my own thoughts or anything about myself?
Philip Schultz

The topics addressed byMy Dyslexia should help parents and grandparents better understand what their children are experiencing.  Among subjects addressed are: why the children often prefer being alone; why they so often attract the attention of bullies; their difficulty with poor self-image; and the disintegration reaction experienced when such a child feels great pressure to explain himself.  Books like this one will make it easier for parents, grandparents, and teachers to find the patience and understanding needed to help their children and students cope successfully with a condition that will so critically impact the rest of their lives. 

The good news is that there is hope for them – and Philip Schultz proves it.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0393079643&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

How Do Books Make YOU Feel?

From Hachette Australia comes this celebration of some of the Hachette authors:

 I’m not sure how many of these are available in North America, but I suspect it’s quite a few of them because they look very familiar…although they do go by pretty quickly.

The Last Policeman

Roughly fifty percent of the world’s population will be dead in a few months.  You are a police detective.  People are still murdering each other for the same old reasons.  Do you really want to spend all your remaining time and energy catching the bad guys?  Is there any point?  Well, freshly minted Police Detective Hank Palace believes there is, and although everyone else is eager to call Peter Zell’s death a suicide, he is not buying it.
Maia, the massive asteroid officially known as 2011GV, is on a collision course with the earth and there is nothing anyone can do to change that.  Even the date of the devastating crash (expected to have the blast force of 1,000 Hiroshima explosions) has been publicly announced.  All that remains to be made public is Maia’s strike-point.  Surprisingly, although public services are disappearing, food supplies are shrinking, and the economy is crashing, a reasonable semblance of everyday life continues.  An increasing number of people, however, have decided to check out early by taking their own lives.  More often, they just stop coming to work, preferring, instead, to spend the remaining time with their families or doing the things on their bucket lists.
Hank Palace is not the only law enforcement officer still on the job in Concord, New Hampshire, but he is one of the few who still cares about locking criminals up now that every sentence longer than six months is effectively a sentence of life without parole.  He is certain that, as the streets become more dangerous with each passing month, the certainty of dying in jail if caught in even a minor criminal act is the only thing that keeps people even as safe as they still are.
The Last Policemanis the first book of a planned trilogy within which Ben Winters will explore what might happen when everyone knows in advance the exact date of a catastrophe that will lead eventually to the end life on the planet.  In this pre-apocalyptic introduction to the series, the United States (and presumably, the rest of the world) is already a bleak place.  Most of the characters in this dark novel reflect the bleakness of their environment, one in which nothing can be taken for granted and no individual taken at face value. 
Ben H. Winters
The Last Policemanhas been characterized as a pre-apocalyptic police procedural, and that is exactly what it is.  Detective Palace’s quest to prove his hunch that Peter Zell did not kill himself – to which the bulk of the novel is dedicated – is complicated by society’s irreversible breakdown.  The crime lab is backed up for weeks, and has been falling farther and farther behind schedule as apathy becomes the norm and technicians desert their jobs.  Investigators are willing to accept the easiest, most obvious, answer for any suspicious death encountered.  Insurance companies, determined to deny as many claims as possible (in order to use the cash to pay employee salaries), make it obvious to the police that they prefer a determination of suicide to one of murder.
Through it all, Hank Palace’s determination to do right by the dead man helps to maintain a bit of order in a world that will move closer to the brink of destruction in the second book of the series.
(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=boocha01-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=1594745765&ref=tf_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr